Three R’s for inclusive education

ASCB President Eva Nogales asked David J. Asai of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to be guest author for this issue’s President’s Column.

The lack of racial diversity in science is appalling. Today, the nation is approximately 30% PEERs—Persons Excluded because of Ethnicity or Race—but the scientific workforce is only about 10% PEERs.1 By failing to include large segments of our nation’s talent pool—a nation that will be “majority-minority” by 2042—we exclude the divergent perspectives that produce the innovation and creativity that drive scientific excellence.2,3

There are some who blame the “leaky pipeline.”4 The lack of diversity will disappear, they say, if we just do more outreach to middle and high school students. But they are wrong. It’s not for lack of interest that we fail to have greater racial diversity in science. Of the nearly one million students who enter college every year intending to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), approximately 34% are PEERs. But they who were once over-represented soon become the under-represented. PEERs comprise 34% of the students entering college intending to study STEM, but only 19% of recipients of STEM bachelor’s degrees and 11% of recipients of STEM PhDs.5 Since 1992 the proportion of students entering college intending to study STEM who are PEERs has tripled, but their poor persistence rate remains unchanged and is half that of non-PEERs.1

And there are some who might acknowledge the high initial interest by PEERs in science, but blame the low persistence rates on the lack of preparation and poor math skills of the PEERs. This, too, is inaccurate. When comparing the outcomes of students planning to major in STEM who come to college with similar high school math and science preparation, similar family backgrounds in higher education, and similar family incomes, PEERs leave STEM fields at much greater rates than non-PEERs; however, this disparity is not seen in non-STEM fields that require quantitative skills.6,7

There is something about the way we teach science that is disproportionately driving away the very persons who can contribute the most to diversity in science. Instead of continuing to pursue the failed deficit-based approach of “fixing the student,” it is time for us to exercise our responsibility of making our teaching more inclusive, especially the introductory courses, which is when most students choose to leave STEM. Here are three R’s.

Reimagine the Syllabus
Let us find ways to ask our students what they think, rather than what they know or what they’ve memorized from their massive textbooks. We should tell the tales of discovery, which is often the product of accidental convergences of disconnected observations made by persons from different backgrounds, rather than simply featuring the winners of the Nobel Prize. And let us talk about our mistakes, the sad stories when science was misused to perpetuate racism and social injustice.

Reform Laboratory Courses
Our laboratory courses should be organized opportunities for students to engage in the process of discovery such as through course-based research experiences, rather than a series of exercises for which the answers are already known. Our goal should be to encourage students to embrace uncertainty, explore curiosity, and evaluate evidence, rather than worry about the correct number of significant figures in their lab reports.

Re-center on Belonging
The introductory course should be when students are encouraged to explore ideas, rather than a time to “weed out” 18-year-olds to protect the sanctity of our discipline. We should assess student learning using clearly articulated competencies, rather than grade on the curve. And we should ensure that course prerequisites prepare students to learn, rather than being arbitrary barriers that exclude students. After all, does introductory biology really require the student to first know calculus?

Two pandemics. One—only a few months old—is the uncontrolled infection by a lethal virus. The second pandemic—many centuries older—is the unabated infliction of lethal racism. We must understand that, just as restaurants and bars are dangerous places because of the virus, so too are our classrooms and laboratories unsafe places for persons of color, where PEERs are compelled to shed their cultural identities and be constantly on guard to survive.

Our nation has spent trillions of dollars to combat the virus, but very little to root out the causes of racism. Our colleges and universities have spent countless hours developing elaborate plans for students to return to our classrooms and laboratories, but very little to create a more inclusive learning environment. It is not surprising then, that when schools re-open, many students are likely to choose not to return and that PEERs will stay away at nearly twice the rate as white students.8,9

When higher education re-opens, our objective should not be to “return to normal” because “normal” was never satisfactory. Instead, we have the opportunity, here and now, to begin to reform science education so that science and science education will be safer places for all students, where they feel that they belong and that we expect them to be successful.

For further discussion of this topic, see the Feature Article by Kenneth Gibbs on p. 8.

References and Footnote
1Asai DJ (2020). Race matters. Cell 181, 754–757.

2Page S (2007). The Difference. Princeton University Press.

3Jackson SE, Joshi A (2011). APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Vol.1, Chapter 20.

4If we do nothing else, let’s banish the term “pipeline” as a metaphor for the development of students. Unlike a pipeline, students enter and leave from multiple points. Unlike a commodity that flows through a pipeline, students have agency. And unlike an inert pipe, the scientific establishment has the responsibility to interact with the students as they move through the system. See also: Gibbs K (December 17, 2014). Beyond the pipeline: Reframing science’s diversity challenge. Scientific American

5National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (2019). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. National Science Foundation.

6Huang G, Taddese N, Walter E (2000). Entry and Persistence of Women and Minorities in College Science and Engineering Education. U.S. Dept. Education, National Center for Education Statistics. NCES 2000-601.

7Riegle-Crumb C, King B, Irizarry Y (2019). Does STEM stand out? Examining racial/ethnic gaps in persistence across postsecondary fields. Educ. Res. 48, 133–144.

8Jacschik S (May 4, 2020). Surveys reveal bleak picture for colleges in the fall. Inside Higher Ed.

9Patel V, Field K (2020). Vulnerable students: Creating the Covid-era safety net. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

About the Author:

David Asai is Senior Director for Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical institute.